Life in the corporate world is not easy. In the race to come up with the most unique products and to make oneself most appealing to customers, sometimes companies trip and fall flat on their noses. Clothes with the wrong slogans, products with insensitive tag lines, commercials that make light of serious issues all invite severe criticism and sometimes, even boycott.
Let’s take a look at a few brands over the past few years that tried to be dynamic or funny through their products or advertisements but instead landed with eggs on their faces.
The most recent one was Gap Inc. (GPS), whose namesake brand got into trouble for featuring a map of China, without its disputed territories, on one of its T-shirts. Chinese social media users took offense to the map, which they consider incomplete. Gap apologized and removed the item from its stores. Luckily, the controversy didn’t affect the stock.
Earlier this year, H&M faced ire for featuring a picture of an African-American boy wearing one of its sweatshirts under the title ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.’ The caption was termed racist and the brand was forced to remove it.
Last year, apparel company American Eagle (AEO) faced criticism for selling metal cuff bracelets that resembled slave shackles. Shoppers blamed the store chain for being insensitive to the ugly issue of slavery. Fast fashion retailer Forever 21 also came under fire (pun unintended) for introducing grey shirt-dresses that resembled army training gear. Critics included veterans who rebuked the brand for insulting the US Army.
At times, problems are caused not only by inappropriate products but also by poorly thought-up marketing campaigns. In 2016, Vera Bradley (VRA) came up with an ad campaign aimed at women aged 25 to 40 with the tag line ‘It’s good to be a girl.’ The tomboys in town didn’t cotton too well to this ‘girly’ promotion and several people found it either patronizing or just plain sexist.
H&M faced ire for featuring a picture of an African-American boy with the title ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.’
The year 2015 seems to be the year in which several companies managed to make fools of themselves. Nordstrom (JWN) came up with a Hanukkah-themed sweater with the words ‘Chai Maintenance’ printed on it. After people deemed it offensive to Jewish women in particular, the store had to take it off its racks.
Under Armour (UAA) courted controversy with its Iwo Jima T-shirt. The shirt had a picture of players lifting a basketball hoop similar to the iconic image of Marines lifting the US flag at the Iwo Jima battle during World War II. The company apologized after being accused of disrespect.
In yet another instance, Target (TGT) found itself at the receiving end when it sold a red sweater bearing the words ‘OCD – Obsessive Christmas Disorder’ during Christmas. The store was blamed for making fun of obsessive compulsive disorder without any thought for people suffering from it. However, unlike its peers, Target did not remove the piece but continued selling them.
In 2014, Urban Outfitters (URBN) faced a barrage of criticism for bringing out a vintage sweatshirt with the words Kent State printed on the front along with what appeared to be blood stains. The retailer was rebuked for its insensitivity towards the victims of the 1970 Kent State University shooting tragedy. Urban Outfitters apologized profusely and pulled the item from its shelves. The same year, fashion retailer Zara was forced to remove a children’s shirt from its stores because it resembled Nazi concentration camp uniforms.
Starbucks had to drop its Race Together campaign after a week following criticism
The apparel companies are not alone when it comes to making blunders, others too seem to have a knack for it. Once more, 2015 seems to be ruling the roost. Starbucks (SBUX) came out with its Race Together campaign encouraging race relations discussions between customers and baristas. It was dropped after a week following criticism that such a serious issue cannot be discussed so lightly.
The same year McDonald’s (MCD) came out with an ad campaign featuring billboard messages with references to the 9/11 tragedy and Boston bombings. The fast food chain was rebuked for trying to profit from grief. Anheuser-Busch (BUD) was blamed for encouraging date rape when its Bud Light bottles came out with the words #UpForWhatever on the labels.
Similar to the recent Gap-China fiasco, in 2016, Coca-Cola (KO) released an illustration of Russia without Crimea, offending Russian Twitter users. The beverage company blamed the gaffe on a third-party agency and republished the ad with Crimea. In 2017, Nivea gained the disapproval of many with its ‘White is Purity’ ad caption that was deemed outright racist. How can one forget the Lady Doritos fiasco by Pepsi (PEP) earlier this year?
Even after all these years, companies don’t seem to have learnt their lesson. Every now and then, they keep launching products and advertisements which make people wonder what they were thinking. In a rapidly shrinking world where corporates cater to people of multiple ethnicities, extra effort must be put into research to bring out appropriate promotional campaigns and products that do not offend anyone in terms of race, nationality, religion or gender.
Companies must also be extra careful not to mock serious issues or capitalize on grief and tragedy. Failure to do so could tarnish a brand massively. Wall Street does not have patience for constant blunders.